SIMPLE UNITY

January 13, 2016
by
3 mins read

Unity Plaza, the approximately 2.5-acre space that once was a nondescript stormwater retention pond, located on the corner of Riverside Avenue and Forest Street, has rolled out the welcome mat and announced its mission to serve the people of Jacksonville through activities focused on wellness, community, and the performing arts. Yet the greatest challenge to achieving said mission will require that folks know just who can use the space and when. The answer is simple, according to Unity Plaza Executive Director Jen Jones: Anyone can use it at any time.

That could still confuse many who may first focus on the 285 apartments that comprise 220 Riverside Apartments and encircle Unity Plaza. Jones is quick to clarify that the Plaza is not owned by the apartment building, but that the building developers, NAI Hallmark Partners, donated the land in order to create a public park … one that is privately operated. The apartment building has since been sold to a national holding company listed on and traded on NASDAQ. The retail space is, indeed, managed by NAI Hallmark Partners. Most of it is. One space belongs to Unity Plaza, a 501(c)3 organization. Oh, and it is all located in Brooklyn. Just north of Riverside. Clear as mud.

OK, wait … quickly, from the beginning.

The corner that is 220-330 Riverside Avenue was once a neighborhood that had deteriorated, its dilapidated buildings and vacant lots sat dormant for quite a while. In 1990, city documents showed that many of the condemned structures were to be demolished in order to eliminate a backlog.

In 2005, NAI Hallmark Partners, with the city’s blessing, began planning the redevelopment of the area, crafting a vision for a mixed-use space. Three mayors later, NAI Hallmark Partners gifted the land that is now the Plaza to both the city and a newly formed nonprofit organization that would administer the area and provide programming. That organization took on the name of Unity Plaza and, after one more mayoral cycle through city government, the space officially opened in September 2015.

Unity Plaza is touted as a private-public partnership because NAI Hallmark Partners received a tax rebate grant up to $3.7 million over a span of 20 years, but the majority of the daily operation expenditures are from private donations and a Common Area Maintenance (CAM) fee paid by businesses in the ground-level retail spaces.

Once again for clarity: Jacksonville-based NAI Hallmark Partners own and operate the ground-floor retail spaces that currently house the restaurants, such as Sbraga & Company, with more to come this year. The Tennessee-based Mid-America Apartment Communities owns and leases the apartment units at 220 Riverside. Next, the nonprofit organization Unity Plaza manages and programs activities at the Plaza. Finally, the Plaza belongs to all of Jacksonville.

“We want Jacksonville to program the site,” Jones says, “but it takes time for people to know that this space is available to them to do so.” Jones also shares that it was just as difficult and time-consuming getting city government to understand what exactly was going on at Unity Plaza as it was to get the word out to the community. “It really is here for the common good.  There is no agenda or motive other than becoming sustainable and beneficial,” Jones adds.

The model for the Plaza was borrowed from that of other cities, like Portland, Oregon, which placed a high emphasis on overall city wellness. For Jones, launching and operating Unity Plaza is part-and-parcel of what she calls a cultural revolution here in Jacksonville. She and her staff focus on the three-pronged approach of community, wellness and entertainment.

For the community, the Plaza has been the launching point of a number of holiday festivities and celebrations. As stated earlier, one ground-floor retail space was gifted in unison with the land to serve as both an office space for Plaza staff and a community center where folks can gather and hold events. A book cart based on the arching logo of the organization sits outside the space.

Yoga and spiritual alignment workshops cover the wellness aspect so far; some offerings are fee-based, others are free to the community. As for the entertainment, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and local music and dance groups have performed on the Plaza’s temporary stage — a shipping container that converts into a performance area. The addition of a band shell is in the works, to be built adjacent to the retention pond.

All of these plans cost money. “What we get from the CAM is helpful, but it amounts to a few nickels in the grand scheme of costs associated with operation,” Jones says. In order to cover the price, the organization is embarking on a capital campaign in 2016 in order to ensure sustainability. While it’s not clear exactly how much funding will be required, sustaining a staff and the infrastructure needed to operate requires more than a simple donation box at the Plaza’s entrance, which is why no such item exists.

When asked if the organization and space may have launched prematurely, Jones responds that she is “grateful that we were able to launch after the Great Recession. Do I wish that there were details that would have been better coordinated? Yes.” Her statement and tone are careful not to stir up past difficulties and clashes that may have been speedbumps on the road to bring about the Plaza.

For Jones, this is a step in the best direction. “Every neighborhood in Jacksonville should have a Unity Plaza. The timing could not be any more pertinent,” Jones shares in the same breath in which she mentions the upgraded Wi-Fi soon to connect Unity Plaza.

As for the current and only Unity Plaza in Jacksonville, Jones reiterates that it belongs to every resident in Jacksonville. The tagline from that 1989 baseball movie — if you build it — comes to mind, and now the rest is up to the community.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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